It's no secret that casual sex often goes hand-in-hand with alcohol. Everyone knows about the alcohol-laced 2 AM booty call, or the drunken stumble out of a club with the guy you just met. Indeed, virtually every study of casual sex that has examined alcohol has found that, in general, those who hook up tend to drink more. But how common is drinking before casual sex exactly? And are we talking just a couple of drinks or getting so wasted you have no idea how you ended up naked in a stranger’s bed?
A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research sheds some light on these questions. A research team headed by Jennifer Walsh analyzed alcohol use in almost 500 casual and 1400 romantic sexual intercourse events that happened to 300 college women on a monthly basis over a period of 12 months. Alcohol use was not very common during romantic sex: 20% of romantic encounters involved some drinking and only 5% involved heavy drinking (defined as four or more drinks). Hookups, on the other hand, were a different story: Women drank during 53% of their hookups, and drank heavily during 38% of all hookups.
But not all hookups are created equal. There was an almost perfect linear relationship between drinking and partner closeness: The less known the partner, the more likely women drank before sex, and the more likely they drank a lot. Look at the graph I created based on their data. When the casual partner was an ex-boyfriend, for example, only 30% of hookups involved drinking and 17% heavy drinking. When the partner was a random stranger, however, 89% of hookups involved drinking and 63% involved four or more drinks!
Marijuana use was also more common with casual (15%) than romantic sex (3%), though the type of hookup partner didn’t seem to matter much.
Older (and less detailed) studies support the ubiquity of alcohol during casual sex. Among 200 Canadian students, only 27% reported being completely sober during the majority of their one-night stands and hookups with strangers. The rest were mildly (27%), very (35%), or extremely (9%) intoxicated. In another study of over 500 students, those whose most recent intercourse experience was with a casual partner were much more likely to drink during that encounter (55%) than were those with a romantic partner (22%).
Across various studies, the average number of drinks before hooking up ranges anywhere between 3 and 6 drinks, which, depending on your body mass and tolerance can mean anything from mild intoxication to being pretty wasted. And these were only averages; many people drank far more than six drinks.
Why is drinking so prevalent in hookups?
Alcohol makes you feel a loss of inhibition. Chatting up people you don’t know (or barely know) can be nerve-wrecking; transitioning from just nonsexual chatting to sexual making out can be even more awkward and laden with uncertainty. The less you know the person, the more awkward and uncertain it can get. Alcohol takes care of this for you, making connections with strangers easier, and the transition to sex smoother. “I can talk to beautiful women much easier. It is liquid courage most definitely,” said one 19-year-old guy in a study that analyzed almost 500 “drinking stories” of students from three U.S. universities. “I wasn’t afraid to talk to the guys as I usually do when I am sober,” echoed an 18-year-old girl.
Alcohol also provides an excuse to those who need one. In a world that encourages hooking up but also judges those (especially women) who engage in it too much, many seem to need it. You’re a slut if you hook up with people just because you want to: Good girls don’t actively want to hook up, and being sober means taking full responsibility for your actions. But if you can blame it on the alcohol, you’re absolved of guilt. You can still be a good girl who just happened to make a mistake.
Finally, alcohol is something that people simply expect will lead to hooking up. “It is something that happens when you drink anyways because you lose your inhibitions; that is just a natural part of drinking,” explained one 22-year-old male student. The ‘alcohol à casual sex’ belief is part of the predominant social scripts for what happens, where, how, and why. And as research unequivocally shows, the more you expect that alcohol leads to hooking up, the more likely you are to actually hook up while drinking.
So is all this drinking before hooking up bad for you? That’s a story for another time.
Brown, J. L., & Vanable, P. A. (2007). Alcohol use, partner type, and risky sexual behavior among college students: Findings from an event-level study. Addictive Behaviors, 32, 2940-2052. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2007.06.011
Fielder, R. L., & Carey, M. P. (2010). Prevalence and characteristics of sexual hookups among first-semester female college students. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 36, 346-359. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2010.488118
Fisher, M. L., Worth, K., Garcia, J. R., & Meredith, T. (2012). Feelings of regret following uncommitted sexual encounters in Canadian university students. Culture, Health, & Sexuality, 14, 45-57. doi: 10.1080/13691058.2011.619579
Regan, P. C., & Dreyer, C. S. (1999). Lust? Love? Status? Young adults’ motives for engaging in casual sex. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 11, 1-24. doi:10.1300/J056v11n01_01
Vander Ven, T., & Beck, J. (2009). Getting drunk an hooking up: An exploratory study of the relationship between alcohol intoxication and casual coupling in a university sample. Sociological Spectrum, 29, 626-648. doi: 10.1080/02732170903051417
Walsh, J. L., Fielder, R. L., Carey, K. B., & Carey, M. P. (2013). Do alcohol and marijuana use decrease the probability of condom use for college women? Journal of Sex Research. E-pub ahead of print. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.821442
White, H. R., Fleming, C. B., Catalano, R. F., & Bailey, J. A. (2009). Prospective expectancies among alcohol use-reslated sexual enhancement expectancies, sex after alcohol use, and casual sex. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 23, 702-707. DOI: 10.1037/a0016630
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